Maltese Scientists Work on Wits

Courtesy of Malta Tourism AuthorityRichard Muscat rarely tunes in to the daily news, but while tending to his children last November, he overheard a TV newscast that stopped him. The prime minister had set aside €800,000 to launch a national research program. For the first time ever, the government allocated money to research. "Thank heavens," Muscat recalls thinking. "They have finally done it."Muscat, a neuroscientist at the University of Malta, and his colleagues had lobbied the Maltese

Jul 5, 2004
Martina Habeck
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Courtesy of Malta Tourism Authority

Richard Muscat rarely tunes in to the daily news, but while tending to his children last November, he overheard a TV newscast that stopped him. The prime minister had set aside €800,000 to launch a national research program. For the first time ever, the government allocated money to research. "Thank heavens," Muscat recalls thinking. "They have finally done it."

Muscat, a neuroscientist at the University of Malta, and his colleagues had lobbied the Maltese government since the mid-90s to put research on the national agenda. It had not been an easy task: The Maltese islands, located in the center of the Mediterranean Sea and together hardly half the size of London, make their main income from the sun and the sea: The million tourists per year outnumber the islands' population by a factor of 2.5. Research is still considered an unnecessary extra, funded through the meager budget of the university (altogether around €31 million) and topped off with grants from abroad.

But centuries of occupation are said to have made the Maltese people resilient and persistent, and Maltese life scientists are no exception to that rule. Given their limited resources, they had come a long way, and that finally persuaded their government to invest in research. Now they await the grants that will show them that the government will follow through on its promises.

TACKING PAST OBSTACLES

Malta's university dates back to 1592, but its faculty of science faced a 10-year closure during the 1970s and 1980s due to political problems. Following a change in government, it reopened in 1987, and the number of science graduates per year has risen to nearly 250. "The next push is to get people to do research," notes Muscat. At present, those who decide to pursue a research career leave the country to get their PhD training abroad. Only few return, because research opportunities in Malta are scarce.

"I don't think we can ever aim at having huge and significant volumes of scientific research like other countries," acknowledges Wilfred Kenely at the Malta Council for Science and Technology. "But we can do things. We just have to be selective because our resources are very limited." By capitalizing on Malta's maritime heritage, the seven scientists in the biology department have managed to build an international reputation in marine biology, ecotoxicology, and aquaculture.

Over at the Faculty of Medicine, scientists are also keen to participate in vanguard science. When the Italian government granted Malta approximately €12.25 million from 1996 to 2000 to aid Malta's economic and technical development, Muscat and molecular biologist Alex Felice secured €1.65 million of that money to set up a molecular genetics lab with the latest DNA technology. The resulting molecular diagnostics projects at the university have also attracted a few small biotech companies to set up base in Malta.

Thanks to this recently gained expertise in genetics studies, some hope Malta will become a hub for biobank studies in the Mediterranean region. "There is a need to perform such research on Southern populations," says Stephanie Bezzina Wettinger, one of nine staff members currently working in the molecular genetics laboratory. "Up to now, most studies have been carried out either on Northern European populations or in the USA."

Wettinger argues that Malta offers many advantages: For example, it is an island nation where families are still large, and the population is not totally genetically isolated. The Maltese have mixed with a series of occupants, from the Phoenicians, Romans, and Arabs of ancient times to the British during the last two centuries.

Wettinger is currently working on her PhD project in collaboration with the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam. But she is not an ordinary PhD student: At 32 years old, she has already helped the Department of Health set up a national molecular diagnostic service; she has helped supervise graduate students and written her own grant proposals; and she is involved in her own research. For example, she is managing the Maltese arm of an EU-funded project that investigates the environmental and genetic causes of Parkinson disease. "Here, you end up having to do things yourself," she says. "The situation pushes you to try and do more."

SOLO SAILING

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Thanks to government committments and signing on to the European Union Framework Programme, Maltese research is increasing.

The key to securing local funding (currently, the only source is a University of Malta research grant) lies in finding your own niche. "If you manage to establish yourself as one of the first people in a particular area and you excel in it, the chances are that you are there to stay," says marine ecologist Joseph Borg. "But then once a field becomes saturated, it becomes difficult for other people to go in, because the number of posts is very limited."

As a result, specialists in Malta have to work solo. Borg, who read for his PhD at the University of Plymouth and is now Malta's leading seagrass habitat expert, often misses the opportunity to discuss research issues with other colleagues, for example, when it comes to identifying specimens he has collected during his field studies. "Abroad, you stick to one group of species and a colleague of yours will be doing another group, and you just exchange expertise and specimens. Locally, I had to do most of the identification of different groups myself, and that was quite tough." Borg makes a point of going back to the United Kingdom for study visits, packing his luggage with statistical queries and a list of literature to look up at the British libraries. "These are the things that come along because of the isolation," he notes.

But scientists in Malta have to work around even more basic problems. Saskia Decuypere, now at the Prince Leopold Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, spent 10 months in Malta working on a human genetics project for her master's thesis. "It was mainly PCR-based, so I ordered some primers and they had to come from Italy. It took about eight weeks before you finally got your order." She was also astonished to be faced with a continuous shortage of agarose. "[In Belgium] we buy it in tons and use it day in and day out," she recalls. "[In Malta,] it was really difficult to get hands on your reagents."

Sharing research equipment is not that simple either. Malta is too small and isolated for manufacturers to provide an on-site service, and as a result, broken equipment must be shipped back to mainland Europe, which can hold up experiments for months. Consequently, many scientists are wary of collaborating with others, for fear of someone damaging their expensive tools. "There is a little bit of what we call empire-building over here," says cell and molecular biologist Pierre Schembri Wis-mayer. "Everyone wants to have his own area."

ENTERING EUROPE

Maltese scientists consider their country's joining the European Union to be a blessing: Not only will it certainly increase the opportunity to collaborate, but it will also give them access to more outside money. Malta joined the EU Framework Programme (FP) rather late; the Maltese government finally signed an agreement with the European Commission in June 2001. Scientists immediately jumped on the train and managed to perform well: Around 25 Maltese research projects receive funding from FP5, bringing back twice the amount of money Malta contributed to the FP5 budget. EU funds have also helped to increase the number of student and lecturer exchanges. "It makes life easier," says Muscat. "Much, much easier. It is like everything else, if you are part of the club, then you can do things. If you are not part of the club, then life is even more difficult."

Malta's success with FP5 and its accession to the EU, where science is a priority, finally convinced the Maltese government to put research on the national agenda; to sustain and increase the development of research, this was the essential next step. With €800,000, the planned budget for the first year is only a modest one. But Kenely, who is involved in setting up the research program, focuses on the positive: "We are more happy about the fact that we have started than with what we have in our hands," he explains. "The money will be enough to set the ball rolling and fund a few projects and some capacity-building."

But in the meantime, the waiting for the money is not over, and Borg is skeptical: "It is definitely a good thing, but it has to be activated," he says. "In Malta, because of lack of funding, such projects take very long to be implemented."

The government finally issued a call for proposals in late March to determine what the funding allocations will be like. Muscat hopes the money will materialize by October. "It takes a bit of time for all these things to come in place," he says. "But now it happens, and it is in my life time!"

Martina Habeck m.habeck@gmx.net is a London-based freelance reporter.